In the proposed Phoenix program, robotic arms and end effectors can decouple an antenna from its retired military communication satellite and reuse it in a new satellite, saving money, maintaining global coverage, and cleaning up space junk. (Source: DARPA)
Love, love, love this idea. Just this weekend, I was up in the mountains of New Hampshire with my family and we were scoping out the meteor showers in the big, big sky. We were noticing all the satellites and got to talking about space junk and how crazy it is that humans not only litter their earth, but now space as well. Leveraging robotics to clean up our mess is a beautiful thing.
Just imagine the wealth of failure analysis information available from recovered satellites! On the one hand this would provide a wealth of information to future builders but it also would justifiably scare the heck out of everyone who ever made a satellite that hasn't yet burned up in re-entry. There's a whole lot of really proprietary information floating around out there. Imagine the US permitting the Russians (and Chinese and Indians and Pakastanis and . . .) to perform detailed failure analysis of technology and software used during the cold-war. All those "weather" satellites with gamma ray detectors and high resolution photographic assemblies. This could start a whole other space-race of countries (and companies) rushing to recover their satellites before anyone else did.
The comments about space junk on some of the stories I wrote on using composites in satellites piqued my interest in the subject, so when I saw this announcement I grabbed it. Rob is right: the idea of recycling has reached beyond Earth's atmosphere.
bob, good point. Since the "junk" is getting recycled in space and not returning to Earth, I wonder if DARPA, or NASA, is considering equipping Phoenix (the tender) with telematics of some kind that can send such data back for analysis. And since Phoenix is aimed at US military comms satellites, maybe DARPA is thinking preemptively about protecting its IP.
What's interesting is the extent of the space junk. There are thousands of pieces, including an astronaut's glove. I'm sure there's a great backstory there. And all of those pieces are tracked so they know when a piece might slam into the space station. One piece came close to the space station not long ago.
There was a marvelous TV show for a short time with Andy Griffith who was a junkyard man who built his own space ship to go and "harvest" the space junk left on the moon. I guess someone finally watched the old show and put a plan together. Kudos to Andy! :-)
The ability to do failure analysis on this reclaimed "junk" should be a no brainer. There would be a wealth of really critical engineering data to be mined that could only help improve future satelittes and other related products.
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